South American Big Five: Puma


The puma puma concolor (also known as cougar, mountain lion, panther and catamount) is the second largest cat found in the Americas (males typically weigh 53 to 90 kilograms) and has an impressive range stretching from Canada in the north to the southernmost tip of Chile. It also frequents a huge range of habitats from cold mountains and tundra through to humid rainforest and desserts; however, there is a general preference for canyons, escarpments, rim rocks and dense brush. As such, pumas can be a very unexpected surprise on any wildlife holiday to the Americas.

Pumas are members of the Felidae family with their closest relative in the Americas being the much smaller jaguarundi. Pumas are classic stalk-and-ambush predators and – as would be expected from their varied habitat – have a wide variety of prey species including large mammals such as deer, elk and domestic cattle; small birds; rodents and even insects when times are hard. Large prey is typically killed through strangulation which helps differentiate kills from jaguars which usually bite through the skull.

Pumas are crepuscular (being most active around dawn and dusk) and tend to lie-up in dense cover during the day making them particularly difficult to see and most sightings are chance encounters during night game drives and road transfers at night.  Territorial ranges vary greater depending on prey density and can be as large as 1000 square kilometres in northern Canada and as small as 25 square kilometres in some tropical areas.

Where to watch Pumas

Pumas are incredibly difficult animals to predict and almost all puma sightings happen by chance, particularly at night. Generally speaking, you have the greatest chance where prey densities are high, so areas that are good for jaguars (e.g. the Pantanal, Los Llanos, northern Belize, Manu) are also good for pumas. Occasionally, a wildlife lodge will find a puma kill and quickly construct a hide in the anticipation of a revisit and sometimes the daytime haunts (favourite trees, caves etc.) can be located and visited, however, the animals usually have a number of favoured places to choose from.

Watching pumas in the Torres del Paine, Chile

The high escarpments and canyons of the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile seem to be the only place where sightings of puma are anywhere close to being predictable. Here, there are a handful of remote caves where pumas are known to rear their young and the spring months (Sep, Oct, Nov) can often provide good results as the puma parents return to the caves regularly to feed their young. You will still need a good guide, a large amount of patience and a good deal of luck to get results. Night vision gear is also recommended as most of the sightings are after dark.

Read Nigel Richardson’s excellent account of Puma watching in the Torres del Paine National Park

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